Urban Parks - A Welcomed Respite in Cities

Historically, parks in cities had functions relating to well-being, urban hygiene, recreation and representation. An urban park in a city truly offers something for everyone. Taking Hyde Park in London as an example, you can simply enjoy a walk, cycle, picnic, or even swim, horse ride, or boat in the green space. One of the reasons why I say urban parks are a welcome respite is because I may walk along a busy street and immediately feel a change in pace when arriving in a park in the middle of a busy city. The positive effects of this is so much so that I often find myself visiting parks when I am travelling to other cities. Urban parks hold a piece of local life - seeing the joggers, the dog owners, the readers, etc carry on with their daily lives in an energetic environment, is an invaluable insight that I seek out of the long tourist queues.


Enjoying Regent's Park in London, UK

Major Urban Parks

From New York’s 843 acres Central Park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted which is the most visited park with over 25 million annual visitors to the parks closer to my home in London - there are eight royal parks in Greater London, one is never too far from an urban

park. It’s no wonder 33% of London is made up of green spaces. Indeed, the design philosophy of Olmsted, who believed parks are a tranquil place from the overcrowded urban cities, include thick shrubs and trees to create a physical and visual separation in his parks’ borders. In Paris, Jardin du Luxembourg is an unmistakable icon with 23 hectares. It is completed in 1625 with tree-lined promenades, Medici Fountain, playgrounds, curated flowerbeds and my favourite design element - the loosely placed movable chairs that users can arrange to their liking. In Asia, the Meiji Jingu Gaien and Naien in Tokyo left a strong impression when I first visited it. Crossing the large 12 metre torii gates, the gates represent the entrance to a sacred ground where the every day is left behind. You are then welcomed by 170,000 trees that create a dense forest, and your footsteps are slowed down simply from the change in flooring material into small gravels that make a sound upon every step. Today, I revisit it during each stay in Tokyo.      

The Modern Day Urban Park

In 1999, the idea for The High Line, New York was born. Although it is not a traditional park, its creative use of the elevated train track to introduce an open space where one can slow down and escape from the city soon garners attention from the world's leading designers. Even though it is often packed with tourists today, the transition between street-level madness to the elevated landscape is a welcome sight in the city. The project is so successful in its transformation of abandoned space, challenging the traditional notion of what makes a park that it is now a case study for many pursuing landscape architecture and redeveloping disused space.

Recently, I submitted in collaboration a concept proposal for Urban Confluence, a competition to design an iconic landmark in San Jose, California. During the development of the concept proposal, my readings identified the following as important aspects in the successes of today’s urban parks:

  1. Access and linkages, look and feel public

“9 out of 10 feel that our green spaces help make the local area more desirable
therefore leading to economic uplift in an area.” 1

  1. Facilitate sporting activities to happen

“Over 50% of people use green spaces for exercise, leisure, and recreation.” 1

  1. Create a variety of spaces in parks for individuals and groups in a way that allows them to see and walk through it

“25% of individuals use parks to relieve stress.” 1

“Over 75% think our green spaces bring communities closer together.” 1

In Japan, an art collective, interdisciplinary group of ultratechnologists - teamLab have been integrating art in existing parks. Although the parks already exist, the work that they deliver introduces exciting programmes to visit the parks. From the Digitized Lakeside and Forest in Saitama to A Forest where Gods Live in Kyushu Saga Takeo Mifuneyama Rakuen, the team’s creativity shines a new light to the role parks play cities and bring new visitors to urban parks. In today's context where wide, open spaces act as a safe space to linger, it is an addition that I wish to see more of.

Realising and Maintaining Parks

Urban parks can only be built and maintained if they are supported by planning and urban development in cities. Green spaces are often vulnerable to property developers to develop it as they deliver no or limited financial yield for its owners, however, the non-monetary benefits such as performing the role of a space to escape the hustle and bustle of a city, as well as acting as the lungs of our cities are significant to the well-being of citizens. An interesting read on the economic value of green spaces published by The Land Trust, a UK organisation that owns and manages public open spaces identified the following:

- £7.8 million ($10 million) added to the value of houses within a 500 metre radius of the park – an average of £8,674 ($11,000) per property.

- £48,000 ($62,000) annual revenue generated for the small businesses that operate in the park, such as dog walkers and ice cream vendors.

- £38,000 ($49,000) a year additional revenue for other local businesses, where people have spent money while visiting the park.

The indirect contributions of parks are invaluable. When asked what makes a city livable, Adrian Benepe, the former New York City park commissioner who helped realise the High Line, he said,

“There’s a whole variety of things, but really at the top of the list is parks and open space.”

1 Data from The Land Trust (https://thelandtrust.org.uk/)

If you have any questions or simply to chat about the above topic, please do not hesitate to contact me via email at von@vonxarchitects.com